Broad Cinema: In Praise Of “Sneaky Feminism”

How VAGINA MONOLOGUES’ Eve Ensler gave FURY ROAD its feminist bona fides.

From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.

This week, we're honoring Eve Ensler. Live in an Alamo Market? Get your tickets for Mad Max: Fury Road here!

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Mad Max: Fury Road is a sneaky movie. So sneaky, in fact, that when it was released, director George Miller was accused of subjecting unwitting audiences to feminist propaganda under the guise of a pyrotechnic action blockbuster. When Fury Road started to show strong box office numbers, nightmare-humans all over the first world took to their keyboards to demand a boycott of Miller’s “trojan horse feminism.” The general gist of their complaint was that Miller had betrayed both his gender and his audience by offering up a Mad Max movie where Max himself took a (sometimes literal) backseat to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa—a woman with a shaved head and an indisputably feminist agenda.

In fact, George Miller and his co-writers had betrayed these Breitbart bigots and denizens of the men’s rights blogosphere more profoundly than they ever could have imagined. Not only had the Fury Road writing team constructed a powerful narrative about female exploitation and survival, but George Miller himself had sought guidance from none other than playwright Eve Ensler. The very same unapologetically, articulately, iconically feminist Eve Ensler who birthed The Vagina Monologues.

What a bait-and-switch! Come for the explosions, stay for the unflinching scrutiny of patriarchal culture. The truth is much simpler than all that, of course. For his fourth installment in the post-apocalyptic Mad Max universe, Miller stated that he merely wanted to explore what happens when the fight over dwindling natural resources shifts focus from guzzoline to human beings. Those human beings, as it turns out, are the healthy women needed to make healthy babies. Given the machismo and firepower on display in the established Mad Max universe and the inevitable scarcity of fertile women in a population slowly dying of radiation sickness, it requires no leap of logic to imagine the enslavement, rape, and dehumanization that results.

This perspective shift in Fury Road is precisely what made Ensler an ideal consultant on the film. Miller was looking to describe a world where women are treated like prized commodities to be hoarded and used up. Meanwhile, Ensler’s extensive work as an activist in safe houses across the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Haiti, Egypt and Iraq allowed her to witness firsthand the effects that a violent patriarchy can have on the minds and bodies of women struggling to exist in societies that tell them they are not equal or autonomous. Sounds familiar.

Despite the closeness of their ideologies, these two weren’t acquainted until Miller saw Ensler give a speech at a human rights conference in Sydney. Ensler spoke frankly about the atrocities she witnessed, and opined on the power of theater to sway hearts and minds. Miller must have known they were kindreds. He approached Ensler after her keynote to make an offer: Ensler could read the Fury Road script, and if she liked it, he would fly her out to Namibia where they were shooting so she could offer the actresses her guidance.

Because Ensler is a woman with an intimate understanding of female suffering and subjugation, and because she is a person with at least decent taste in movies, she loved the script: “We are not things! We are not things! As soon as I read that in the script, I said, I’m in. That is the call of our times.”

Miller made good on his word, and Ensler joined the cast and crew on location. She worked intensively with the five actresses playing Immortan Joe’s wives, though they are more accurately described as his sex slaves. All five of these characters are implicitly raped by Immortan Joe in his quest to produce a healthy heir. The actresses mined Eve Ensler’s experience with sex trafficking victims and rape survivors at length to understand the weight of their characters’ backstories, and to give their performances depth and authenticity.

Ensler unreservedly champions Miller’s decision to seek her counsel on the film. “I think George Miller is a feminist,” she said in an interview. “And he made a feminist action film. It was really amazing of him to know that he needed a woman to come in who had experience with this.”

It is, in fact, amazing that Miller sought Ensler’s guidance, and it suggests a refreshing ability on the director’s part to sacrifice his ego if it will better serve the work. After all, Miller and fellow writers Brendan McCarthy and Nic Lathouris had created a narrative about the pain and struggle of women—without the creative partnership of women. While these three men undoubtedly produced a powerfully feminist work, representing the plight of a disenfranchised group to which you do not belong is a task rife with peril. Myopia, implicit biases, and fundamental misunderstandings can easily hamstring the efforts of even the most visionary auteurs. The stickiest challenge inherent in depicting a world you don’t walk through yourself is achieving authenticity. For people who have never known life outside that world, even the slightest error is glaring. The experience is not unlike that creeping feeling you get from watching realistically rendered computer animation. The characters might look just like you, but something’s not quite right.

When it comes to the wives of Fury Road, at first glance there is ample potential for these characters to fall into that uncanny valley of femininity. For starters, each of them is arrestingly conventionally attractive: Two of them are professional supermodels, two more are model/actresses, and the fifth is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley. And she got the good genes for sure. Then there are the outfits the wives wear for the entirety of the film: gauzy, virginal-white linen wraps that look like the best possible version of a sexy mummy Halloween costume. From the brief snippets of them that made the first Fury Road, the wives seemed relegated to the background—props to galvanize our hero and push the plot forward through their suffering and death.

But on-screen, the wives are anything but pawns in a man’s game. That may be how they start the film, but the wives instantly outgrow their identities as sex slaves, displaying a truly unexpected capacity for defiance, eloquence, and bravery. The deeper and more complex their personalities are revealed to be, the more surprising the supermodel casting becomes. It’s clear that two of these women are Victoria’s Secret models for a reason, but that reason is not to titillate the audience. Or, at least, not just to titillate the audience. In the wives’ world, of course, each of them has been hand picked by two-dimensional metaphor for the patriarchy, Immortan Joe. And if the patriarchy could choose, wouldn’t he choose a lingerie model? If he could dress her, wouldn’t it be in skimpy white? How much of the way these wives look is a construct of their subjugation?

Most of it, if I understand Miller and Ensler correctly.

“George wanted to create women who are not victims, and he certainly accomplished that,” Ensler said of the characters. “The backstories are indelibly imprinted on those actors. You believe they are traumatized.”

That Miller knows more about his universe and characters than his movies reveal is a given. When it comes to these characters, these five women who come to learn they are not things, their backstories are not only vital to their roles as former sex slaves on the run, but their roles as Mad Max characters. And this is where Eve Ensler’s experience, compassion, and outright feminism was most needed.

“It was a privilege to have her around to make these characters something more than just five beautiful girls,” Rose Huntington-Whiteley said of Ensler. “She's spent time in the Congo working with rape victims and women who have had unthinkable things happen to them through the power of men's hands.”

For her role as The Splendid Angharad, Huntington-Whiteley probed Ensler for information about the experiences of women who became pregnant through rape. Her own character is heavily pregnant by Immortan Joe throughout the film, and she looked to Ensler to help her answer questions like, “How would she feel about carrying this child? Is she enjoying being pregnant? Is she having that time of pure love or is she angry? Does she have any regard for this child? What does she feel about that?”

In addition to the prosthetic pregnancy belly, Huntington-Whiteley also had scars applied to her hands and arms during makeup each day. Splendid, Huntington-Whiteley decided after gaining some insight from Ensler, cut herself to cope with the pain and powerlessness of her enslavement. From painted War Boys to irradiated peasants, nearly every actor on Fury Road sat in the makeup chair for one thing or another, but Huntington-Whiteley committing to the application of those scars every day was a physical reminder of the weight of her character’s pain, and the importance of backstory.

It’s clear that the week Eve Ensler spent with the five actresses, sharing stories and answering questions, informed their relationships to their characters for the long months they spent shooting in Namibia. To my mind, the resulting performances are a far cry from the superficial roles these women might have had in a different action movie. Ensler agrees.

“This is an action movie,” she says of Fury Road. “Do I go to action movies? No. But I do believe those films have an enormous impact on mainstream culture. To see a film where women are capable fighters and capable of determining their own destiny to me is significant.”

That statement gets at the heart of the issue of “trojan horse feminism.” Action and adventure movies have mass appeal. Nielsen ratings consistently show that they draw larger audiences than any other genre. Without a doubt, the average action movie is short on capable and autonomous female characters. No one familiar with the Mad Max franchise would assume that Max wouldn’t be the main, or even the most important, character in the fourth movie. Instead, a large group of women take center stage, from our heroine Furiosa to the wives to the age-diverse Vuvalini.

But for me, the most arguably “sneaky feminist” aspect of Fury Road isn’t who gets the most screen time. It’s the film’s insistence on treating women just like any other character: They have their own depth, agency, and personal motivations. Immortan Joe may consider some of them his property, but his bloodthirsty War Boys relish the challenge of fighting these fearsome women. The wives may be scantily clad, but the camera lingers mostly on their faces, their cruel chastity belts, and Splendid’s enormous pregnant belly—the most tangible evidence of her subjugation. Furiosa may be in possession of a shaved head, a prosthetic arm, and 40-plus candles on her birthday cake, but no one says a damn word about any of it. After all, they wouldn’t if she were a man.

It’s certain that many moviegoers arrived at Fury Road utterly unprepared for the experience they were about to have. But who’s to say you need to be prepared for an action movie? Who’s to say messages of equality and solidarity can’t be delivered in unexpected ways? And who’s to say women shouldn’t get a share of the pyrotechnics and engine grease, too? Even if we have to sneak it.

Eve Ensler puts it simply: “One day, we won't have to sneak it. One day we will be overt. One of the great things about this film is that when you have women on your side, you have a better chance of surviving. It's clear that we're all served better when women are equal.”

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